Looking at the nation's $14 trillion-plus debt, it's natural to assume lawmakers have lost sight of what those numbers mean.
The federal budget has included trillion-dollar deficits for the last three years, and despite officials trying to define the corrosive problem in a language people can comprehend, the negotiations aren't exactly kitchen-table talks about June's credit-card statement.
Instead of cutting back on the grocery bill or telling the kids not to text so much, lawmakers are talking about cutting hundreds of billions at a time -- and they still can't seem to arrive at the golden number of $4 trillion that credit ratings agencies say is the evidence of a course correction to the U.S. spending addiction.
The credit rating agencies have repeatedly threatened to downgrade the USA's stellar risk status, and talk of $2.7 trillion or $3 trillion in savings over the next 10 years -- tied to some future commission or congressional vote -- has done little to assuage them. One Standard & Poor's official said Thursday that if Congress can cut $4 trillion from the deficit over the next decade, that would mark a "good down payment."
But what the heck is $4 trillion?
Here are a few examples that might help put that number in perspective:
-- Based on government estimates, $4 trillion is enough to cover the cost of the decade-long war in Afghanistan and the one nearly that long in Iraq three times over, with money to spare.
-- Take what ExxonMobil made in 2010 -- not just their profit, but their total revenue. Now multiply that by 10. That's $4 trillion.
-- On the other end of the pump, the average driver is now spending about $3.70 on a gallon of regular gas -- $4 trillion is enough to buy 1.1 trillion gallons. Since the U.S. consumes about 361 million gallons of gas a day, $4 trillion can buy all of America's gas for eight years.
-- $4 trillion is enough money cover 55 million Social Security recipients for five-and-a-half years.
-- $4 trillion can buy 22,857 of the most expensive home on the market in the United States -- a $175 million ranch in Wyoming.
-- If luxury rides are a better option, $4 trillion would buy 47 million high-end, tricked-out Cadillac Escalades.
-- Hear about the guy who went on "Antiques Roadshow" and found out his Chinese tea cups were worth $1 million? That was nice. $4 trillion could buy his collection 4 million times.
-- There's not much out there that's actually $4 trillion. But a new report Thursday did find something roughly equivalent -- the cost of America's health care tab come 2020.